Reflecting on the 44 presidents who have served these United States and the Founding Fathers who had the vision to create our country, questions arise: Is America what the Founders envisioned it to be? If they were here now, what would the Founders do? What would they think? One thing seems clear: Current political debates could stand to be seasoned with their wisdom.
Take the recent fracas over the Department of Health and Human Services mandate. Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past month, you probably know that the mandate requires private companies, including religious organizations, to provide health insurance that covers sterilization, contraception and drugs that induce abortion.
To most Americans, the mandate looks, at a minimum, like an unconstitutional assault on religious freedom. But the sight of Catholic bishops speaking in one voice led some on the far left to claim, paradoxically, that challenging the mandate represents an unconstitutional attempt by Catholics and other Christians to impose their morality on everyone else. Rachel Maddow even cites opposition to the mandate as one battle of a larger “GOP war on birth control.”
In other news, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has just upheld Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to strike down California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This issue almost surely will end up in the Supreme Court, where our highest court will pronounce its judgment.
Most Americans believe marriage is a pre-political, universal institution rooted in human nature. As such, a limited government does not define it but rather respects it, just as a limited government respects but does not define the rights of the individual. All the major religions agree: Marriage itself transcends any particular religion.
Predictably, many on the secular left argue that defending conjugal marriage is yet another unconstitutional case of the church breeching that sacred wall separating it from the state.
Secularists often invoke the Founders or quote the Constitution whenever sex or something they deem “religious” is involved. Few really care, and many fail to ask, “What would the Founders do?” It’s a good question nonetheless. So, how would the Founders respond to these recent controversies?
First, none would invoke a “wall of separation between church and state” to overturn the historic meaning of marriage or to force Catholic Charities to pay for abortion-inducing drugs. In fact, the phrase “wall of separation” isn’t in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights; it comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Baptists were being persecuted by the Congregationalists, whose denomination was the state-sanctioned, established religion in Connecticut at the time. Jefferson did not object to the public display of religion. Rather, he defended religious liberty.
The Founders did not want a federally established religion, but they also never imagined a naked public square in which any issue supported by people of faith would be a ripe target for secularist snipers. Founders such as James Madison argued that the sheer number of different denominational groups would serve as a check on their individual ambitions. At the same time, they would and should work together to defend “principles … of justice and the common good.”
The Founders also defended the necessity of religion for morality. In his inaugural address, George Washington spoke characteristically:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports … . Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The American Founders were a theologically diverse lot, but they shared several points of agreement, such as:
- The church has a proper authority that the state must respect.
- The federal government should neither establish nor prohibit the free exercise of religion.
- Every person should enjoy religious liberty.
- Religion is vital to the survival and prosperity of the American experiment.
Militant secularists present a distorted and simplistic view of the relationship between faith and politics. The fathers of our country were much more sophisticated. Americans, especially the next president, should work to restore the wisdom of the Founders and pray that freedom will survive in the 21st century.
Jay W. Richards, a Catholic, and James Robison, an evangelical, are co-authors of the book “Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late” (FaithWords, 2012).